Birr Castle, in Offaly, has had for a very long time an esteemed connection to space. The third Earl of Rosse, with a great amount of input from his wife Mary, designed and built an enormous telescope on the grounds in the 1840s, which remained the largest telescope in the world for 70 years. Through it he discovered, among other things, the spiral nature of galaxies, and anyone who wanted to observe them for themselves had to travel all the way to Birr to see them. Today the estate is continuing the astronomical legacy, by not only opening the state up as a science centre, but providing it as the latest outpost in the European wide telescope known as the Low Frequency Array, or LOFAR.
A really informative and enlightening documentary on the subject called 13 Billion Light Years from Birr aired on RTE1 last Thursday. It delved into the history of the estate, which revealed a passion for science that still exists today within the Rosse family, numerous interviews with highly respected Irish scientists, such as Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars, and an in depth investigation into what Ireland-LOFAR is, what its scientists hope it will achieve and what it can do for Ireland’s place in the international science community. Vast in itself, when it’s finished the Irish outpost in Birr will measure 150 meters long by 100 wide, and will be the latest component in the 2000 mile telescope that currently reaches from France to Poland, with plans to stretch as far as Italy. Its goal is to use low frequency radio waves to see further and deeper into the universe than ever before, to detect black holes, planets and possibly communications from extra terrestrial life.The documentary was beautifully made, providing all the components to get Irish audiences interested in this remarkable project we should be proud to be a part of. The passion for the I-LOFAR was evident in every one of the interviewees, from Lady Alicia Clements of Birr Castle, to Irish professor George Miley, who’s part of the LOFAR team and the head of I-LOFAR Prof Peter Gallagher. The jargon was kept to a relative minimum, so the average viewer (like me) could follow, and get just as excited about what could soon be discovered from this small part of Ireland to the infinity of the universe.
Turning back the clock another few hundred years and crossing the sea to England, Gunpowder (BBC1, Saturday), endeavoured to justify the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament with King James I in them by showing the gruesome torture of Catholics in some of the opening scenes of the three part series. I won’t go into the finer details to spare anyone of a delicate disposition the visual picture, but they did involve the crushing of a middle aged woman by weights, and the dismembered head of a young would-be priest dipped in tar and paraded for all the gathered crowd to see. It’s no wonder really then, that Robert Catesby (played by his actual descendant Kit Harrington, of Game of Thrones fame, who also co-created and produces the series) was spurred on to recruit a merry band of Catholics to end the Jacobean reign. Although Guy Fawkes is the name most associated with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Catesby was the real brains behind the mission – Fawkes isn’t even revealed until the closing scene of the first episode and there are only two more to go!
Episode One was strangely slow; early on there is a very long search for a Jesuit priest in the home of a noblewoman, which would have been much more effective if it hadn’t been drawn out quite as long as it was. There was also an awful lot of exposition; the villianising of the king’s spymaster Robert Cecil, who really, really hated those Catholics, the hand wringing of Robert Catesby on how best to go about exacting his revenge, the long winded introduction of a character solely to have him brutally offed by bald, vicious Guy Fawkes in the closing moments… it was almost as if the whole episode was an extremely long prologue that could have been cut back to twenty minutes but was left in in order to show the torture. Who knows! I might tune in again next week, but chances are I’ll forget. It’s not that it’s terrible, for one thing it has Liv Tyler in it doing a lovely British accent, it’s just the pacing left me picking up my phone at points to read Wikipedia articles to find out what happened next. Tune in for Kit and Liv, stay for the costumes and production value, leave when your eyes begin to close and you have no other choice.